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Bibliophilic

Hugo and Nebula Award Nominees

The nominees for the Hugo Award have been announced. This list of nominees, along with the list of Nebula Award nominees, creates an excellent yearly science fiction reading plan. I used to make an effort to read all the nominess for both awards (there’s generally a lot of overlap), but lately I’ve been lucky to read two science fiction books a year!

The Hugo Award is chosen by science fiction fans. This year’s nominees are:

  • Eifelheim by Michael Flynn. “A present-day scientific odd couple who are longtime domestic partners, physicist Sharon Nagy and historian Tom Schwoerin, look into the fate of the Black Forest village of the title, which apparently vanished in the plague year 1348, in Flynn’s heartbreaking morality play of stranded aliens in medieval Germany.”
  • His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik. “In this delightful first novel, the opening salvo of a trilogy, Novik seamlessly blends fantasy into the history of the Napoleonic wars.” Patrick O’Brian with dragons?
  • Glasshouse by Charles Stross. “In an era of virtual immortality, where computer backups of human consciousness have become as routine as unlimited body modification, Robin is a patient in a rehab clinic for convalescents of voluntary memory erasure. With only scant clues, contained in a letter from his former self, to his previous and possibly espionage-related career, Robin quickly discovers his new identity offers little protection from several would-be assassins.”
  • Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge. “Circa 2025, people use high-tech contact lenses to interface with computers in their clothes. ‘Silent messaging’ is so automatic that it feels like telepathy. Robert Gu, a talented Chinese-American poet, has missed much of this revolution due to Alzheimer’s, but now the wonders of modern medicine have rehabilitated his mind. Installed in remedial classes at the local high school, he tries to adjust to this brave new world.”
  • Blindsight by Peter Watts. “In the late 21st century, when something alien is discovered beyond the edge of the solar system, the spaceship Theseus sets out to make contact. Led by an enigmatic AI and a genetically engineered vampire, the crew includes a biologist who’s more machine than human, a linguist with surgically induced multiple personality disorder, a professional soldier who’s a pacifist, and Siri Keeton, a man with only half a brain.”

The Nebula Award is selected by writers. This year the nominees are:

  • The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner. “Coming-of-age gets complicated for winsome Lady Katherine Samantha Campion Talbert after she’s shipped off to her uncle, the Mad Duke of Tremontaine (aka David Alexander ‘Alec’ Tielman Campion), who reigns over a decadent world of erotic and political intrigue.”
  • Seeker by Jack McDevitt. “In 2688, interstellar transports Seeker and Bremerhaven left a theocratic Orwellian Earth to found a dictator-free society, Margolia — and vanished. Nine thousand years later, with a flawed humanity spread over 100-odd worlds, Margolia and its ships have become Atlantis-type myths, but after a cup from Seeker falls into the hands of antiquarian Alex Benedict, [he] determines to win everlasting fame and vaster fortune by finding them.”
  • The Girl in the Glass by Jeffrey Ford. “A band of con artists–cum–spiritual mediums focus their psychic and sleuthing powers on a murder mystery in Ford’s offbeat, thoroughly researched fifth novel, set in Depression-era Long Island, on the posh North Shore.”
  • Farthing by Jo Walton. “Walton crosses genres without missing a beat with this stunningly powerful alternative history set in 1949, eight years after Britain agreed to peace with Nazi Germany, leaving Hitler in control of the European continent.”
  • From the Files of the Time Rangers by Richard Bowes. “The individual tales that make up Bowes’s ‘mosaic’ novel add up to a relatively coherent alternate history of Greek gods, men, heroes and cyborgs. Apollo, Bacchus and Pluto have been having their fun for millennia, but just up the Time Stream disaster looms, so they have recruited lost children to become “Time Rangers,” humans able to surf the Time Stream at will and perhaps change history to the gods’ advantage.”
  • To Crush the Moon by Wil McCarthy. “Conrad Mursk has returned to Sol on the crippled starship Newhope. His crew are the frozen refugees of a failed colony known as Barnard’s Star. A thousand years older, Mursk finds Sol on the brink of rebellion, while a fanatic necro cult is reviving death itself.”

I haven’t read any of these books. In fact, I’ve only read one of the authors: Vernor Vinge, whom I like. But in compiling this list, the books that sounded most interesting were Blindsight and Michael Flynn’s 2004 book, The Wreck of The River of Stars.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

One of my favorite books in recent years is Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

I’ve always loved fantasy. I’m also quite fond of Victorian literature, and of Jane Austen and Patrick O’Brian. Jonathan Strange does a marvelous job of stirring all these things together, blending them into something stronger and more potent than the sum of its parts. In particular, I love the language of the novel. Clarke has a the ability to choose just the write phrase for just the right situation. She is a master of nouns. Her prose is plain but perfect.

Here is one of my favorite passages:

Strange took the cup and drank the water down. The cup fell from his hand. Drawlight was aware — he did not know how exactly — that Strange was changed. Against the starry sky the black shape of his figure sagged and his head dropped. Drawlight wondered if he were drunk. But how could a few drops of any thing make a man drunk? Besides he did not smell of strong liquor; he smelt like a man who had not washed himself or his linen for some weeks; and there was another smell too — one that had not been there a minute ago — a smell like old age and half a hundred cats.

Drawlight had the strangest feeling. It was something he had felt before when magic was about to happen. Invisible doors seemed to be opening all around him; winds blew on him from far away, bringing scents of woods, moors, and bogs. Images flew unbidden into his mind. The houses around him were no longer empty. He could see inside them as if the walls had been removed. Each dark room contained — not a person exactly — a Being, an Ancient Spirit. One contained a Fire; another a Stone; yet another a Shower of Rain; yet another a Flock of Birds; yet another a Hillside; yet another a Small Creature with Dark and Fiery Thoughts; and on and on.

“What are they?” he whispered, in amazement. He realized that all the hairs on his head were standing on end as if he had been electrified. Then a new, different sensation took him: it was a sensation not unlike falling, and yet he remained standing. It was as if his mind had fallen down.

He thought he stood upon an English hillside. Rain was falling; it twisted in the air like grey ghosts. Rain fell upon him and he grew thin as rain. Rain washed away thought, washed away memory, all the good and the bad. He no longer knew his name. Everything was washed away like mud from a stone. Rain filled him up with thoughts and memories of his own. Silver lines of water covered the hillside, like intricate lace, like the veins of an arm. Forgetting that he was, or ever had been, a man, he became the lines of water. He fell into the earth with the rain.

He thought he lay beneath the earth, beneath England. Long ages passed; cold and rain seeped through him; stones shifted within him. In the Silence and the Dark he grew vast. He became the earth; he became England. A star looked down on him and spoke to him. A stone asked him a question and he answered it in its own language. A river curled at his side; hills budded beneath his fingers. He opened his mouth and breathed out spring…

He thought he was pressed into a thicket in a dark wood in winter. The trees went on for ever, dark pillars separated thin, white slices of winter light. He looked down. Young saplings pierced him through and through; they grew up through his body, through his feet and hands. His eye-lids would no longer close because twigs had grown up through them. Insects scuttled in and out of his ears; spiders built nests and webs in his mouth. He realized he had been entwined in the wood for years and years. He knew the wood and the wood knew him. There was no saying any longer what was wood and what was man.

All was silent. Snow fell. He screamed…

Blackness.

Like rising up from beneath dark waters, Drawlight came to himself. Who it was that released him — whether Strange, or the wood, or England itself — he did not know, but he felt its contempt as it cast him back into his own mind. The Ancient Spirits withdrew from him. His thoughts and sensations shrank back to those of a Man. He was dizzy and reeling from the memory of what he had endured. He examined his hands and rubbed the places on his body where the trees had pierced him. They seemed whole enough; oh, but they hurt! He whimpered and looked around for Strange.

The magician was a little way off, crouching by a wall, muttering magic to himself. He struck the wall once; the stones bulged, changed shape, became a raven; the raven opened its wings and, with a loud caw, flew up towards the night sky. He struck the wall again: another raven emerged from the wall and flew away. Then another and another, and on and on, thick and fast they came until all the stars above were blotted out by black wings.

Strange raised his hand to strike again…

“Lord Magician,” gasped Drawlight. “You have not told me what the third message is.”

Strange looked round. Without warning he seized Drawlight’s coat and pulled him close. Drawlight could feel Strange’s stinking breath on his face and for the first time he could see his face. Starlight shone on fierce, wild eyes, from which all humanity and reason had fled.

“Tell Norrell I am coming!” hissed Strange.

I am now reading Jonathan Strange for the fourth time in two years. I hunger for more of this world. Last year, Clarke published The Ladies of Grace Adieu, a volume of stories set in the same world, but I want a full-fledged sequel.

This is one of my favorite books.

Ira Glass on Storytelling

Fans of This American Life know that it’s a bastion of fantastic storytelling. But what makes its stories so good? Host Ira Glass explains in this series of clips from YouTube:

These are lessons that can be applied to many forms of storytelling, not just the radio show. In fact, I hope to apply some of them to my blogging style.

How to Read a Book

The Practice of Leadership has a post on how to read and digest a book. (Ignore the rampant comma splices; the info is solid.)

How I read for leisure is different to how I read to learn. This post is focused on improving the reading we do for personal and professional development, rather than leisure reading.

The author has a specific process which includes:

  • Selection. “Choose the books you read wisely. You want to ensure, as far as possible, that the book you read is worth the investment of your time and energy.”
  • Preparation. Remove distractions, ensure sufficient lighting, and have a favorite reading spot.
  • Read actively. This is important. Take notes. Mark favorite passsages. (The author recommends this system of noting favorite passages.
  • Reflect for insight. Try to determine what this book means to you. Reread certain passages. Go back over your notes and highlights. What is it about the book that makes it meaningful to your life, and how can you integrate its ideas into the way you work?
  • Systemize for implementation. If the book has affected you, incorporate its ideas into your life. Create a system that works for you based upon what you have learned.

This is no substitute for Adler’s classic How to Read a Book, but it is a good introduction to attentive reading.

Forever Nuts: The Eary Years of Mutt and Jeff

Here’s news of yet another classic comic strip reprint book. I’m amazed at how fast and furious these are coming. Amazed and delighted. Publisher’s Weekly’s comics blog reports that NBM Publishing will collect strips from the early years of Mutt and Jeff:

The year 2007 is the hundredth anniversary of Mutt & Jeff, one of the longest-lasting and most popular comic strips. It’s also the 30th anniversary of NBM Publishing and a perfect time to reprint the strip as the first of a planned new series of deluxe-format reprints, FOREVER NUTS: Classic Screwball Strips — The Early Years of Mutt & Jeff reveals that the pioneering strip was odder, crazier, and funnier than most modern readers would expect.

FOREVER NUTS is a new series of reprints concentrating on very early, very goofy strips — early classics that have aged surprisingly well, with off-the-wall humor that remains fresh to this day. Each volume will present a different strip from the early 20th century.

Mutt & Jeff began as A. Mutt (the A stood for Augustus), a cartoon about a harried husband who escaped his wife by gambling at the racetrack. The brainchild of cartoonist Bud Fisher first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle’s sports page on November 15, 1907. The strip’s popularity skyrocketed after March 27, 1908, when Mutt met Jeff. A pint-sized insane asylum inmate, Jeff insisted that he was boxing champion James Jeffries. The combination of Mutt (who was always trying to get rich and always failing) with Jeff (gullible and willing to try anything) became a sensation.

You can find more information at the publisher’s web site. (Now if only they’d print the fourth volume of Stephane Heuet’s graphic novel adaptation of Proust. That’s something I’ve been waiting nearly five years for.)

The Children’s Picturebook Price Guide

Ephemera, a blog “exploring the world of old paper, recently published an an interview with Linda and Stan Zielinski, the authors of the Children’s Picturebook Price Guide. According to Amazon:

[This book] provides values for nearly 23,000 books, covering over 700 children’s book illustrators dating from 1929 to 2006. For owners of picturebooks, the price guide is an essential tool to identify and assess their value.

This interview is fascinating, touching as it does upon two of my hobbies: collecting and books. There are several nuggets of good info here. I particularly like this bit:

We tend to focus on the first edition of children’s picturebook which have been met with success in the general children’s book market. This success manifests itself by staying in print for decades, and large number of sales of the book over time. In other words, books that stand the test of time with the children, across generations.

There are many examples: All of the Dr. Suess books, which have sold more than 300 million copies worldwide. The Caldecott Medal winning books, which was initially awarded in 1938, stay in print, and have been read by generations. Madeline, first published in 1939, has never been out of print. Ferdinand, 1936. Wanda Gag’s Millions of Cats, is the earliest example of a picturebook that has stayed in print since its first publication, which was 1928.

There are very few things created in the 30s, 40s, or 50s, remaining unchanged, that would be enjoyed by today’s generation. Superman and Batman were created in the 1930s, and their franchises still run strong. However, it’s not the comic books of the 1930s that is appealing to today’s 8-to-14 year olds–the superheroes have been updated for the modern era. Not so for picturebooks from decades ago.

Millions of Cats is the first book I can remember my mother reading to me. I love it as much today as I did when I was a boy.

My wife and I both love children’s books. Picture books are especially fun. We’re not collectors, but that’s only because we have other hobbies.

[ephemera: Interview with the authors of the Children's Picturebook Price Guide]

Graphic Novels for People Who Hate Comics

Note: This was originally posted to my personal site last spring. I’ve reposted it here following a discussion with Mark at the last writer’s group.

Kristi asked yesterday about good graphic novels for book groups. In response, here’s a list of comics that I think nearly any adult would find entertaining and interesting. Note the absence of superheroes.

The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman
The most important graphic novel yet published. Maus recounts the experiences of Spiegleman’s father as a Polish Jew during the Holocaust. It won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992. Outstanding. A+ $22.05 from Amazon.
La Perdida by Jessica Abel
La Perdida tells the story of Carla, an aimless young American woman living in Mexico City. The ending is a little Hollywood, but overall, this is a great read. B+ $12.97 from Amazon.
Blankets or Good-Bye, Chucky Rice by Craig Thompson
Thompson is a Portland-area creator. Blankets is considered his best work to date, and it’s fine in a Tori Amos sort of way, but feels a little sophomoric at times. I prefer the more imaginative Good-Bye, Chunky Rice. Blankets: B $18.87 from Amazon. Good-Bye, Chunky rice: B+ $9.97 from Amazon.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Persepolis is the autobiography of a woman who grew up in Iran during the reign of the Shah, and during the Islamic Revolution. This book has been compared (favorably) to Maus, and while it’s not quite up to that standard, it’s excellent nonetheless. Highly recommended. A- $11.67 from Amazon.
Black Hole by Charles Burns
One of the next books on my “to-read” shelf. This highly-acclaimed graphic novel is another portrait of adolescence. It combines a sexually-transmitted plague with a series of murders. Highly-regarded. Inc. $15.72 from Amazon.
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid in the World by Chris Ware
The story of a sad family full of sad men. I collected this in comic book form during the mid-nineties — I bought the first issue on the day my father died — but haven’t read it since. Ware is the darling of the intelligentsia.B $22.05 from Amazon.
Torso by Brian Michael Bendis
Remember Eliot Ness of Untouchables fame? After he stood up to Al Capone in Chicago, he moved to Cleveland. This true-crime graphic novel tells of his other big case, the one that ruined him: a series of gruesome killings. A- out-of-print, but available used at $12.95 from Amazon.
Age of Bronze: A Thousand Ships and Age of Bronze: Sacrifice by Eric Shanower
Over the course of a planned seven volumes, Shanower is writing and drawing the history of the Trojan War using primary sources as reference. He’s dispensed with the gods and goddesses, but not their roles. When drawing the books, he relies on archaeological evidence to get the costumes, structures, and objects correct. This is great stuff. Age of Bronze: A Thousand Ships: A $13.57 from Amazon. Age of Bronze: Sacrifice: Inc. $12.97 from Amazon.
Ghost World by Daniel Clowes
Some of you have probably seen the film adaptation of this book. The graphic novel on which it is based is a little different, emphasizing the relationship between the two young women, and spending less time on secondary characters. This is really a series of eight short stories that hang together as a whole. Shortish. A- $9.20 from Amazon.
American Splendor by Harvey Pekar
This book contains dozens of short autobiographical bits from Pekar’s early work. Some are great, others are less impressive, but on the whole American Splendor does a great job capturing adult angst. I actually prefer the recent film, which is wonderfully post-modern and often hilarious. B+ $11.53 from Amazon.
Locas by Jaime Hernandez
Though this is a classic in the field, I haven’t read any of it yet. To quote Publishers Weekly: “These superb stories … define a world of Hispanic gang warfare, ’80s California, punk rock, women wrestlers and the subtle battle to stay true to oneself. Hernandez’s main characters are Maggie and Hopey, two adorable lesbian rockers who start out in a somewhat vague relationship.” Inc. $31.47 from Amazon.
Palomar by Gilbert Hernandez
If you enjoyed Like Water for Chocolate or One Hundred Years of Solitude, then Palomar may be for you. Publishers Weekly again: “The earliest stories in the book owe more to magical realism and Gabriel Garcia Marquez than to anything that had been done in comics before. But in later pieces … Hernandez’s style is entirely his own”. Inc. $25.17 from Amazon.
Box Office Poison by Alex Robinson
Here’s a graphic novel that I do not own and have not read. Box Office Poison gets rave reviews from every corner. From what I understand, it tracks the misadventures of a group of recent college grads. Inc. $18.87 from Amazon.

Did you notice how the good graphic novels plumbed teen angst and autobiography for material? Did you further notice how the great graphic novels covered bigger subjects: the Holocaust, the Islamic Revolution, the Trojan War? Coincidence? I don’t think so.

One other excellent book to consider is Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics ($15.61 from Amazon). Understanding Comics is not a graphic novel, but a visual exploration of the comics medium: how it works, why it works, and so on. It’s brilliant in its simplicity. I actually want to choose this sometime for our book group, and then ask each member to read a graphic novel, too.

Some of you may be wondering, “Where are the great superhero graphic novels?” The short answer is that there aren’t any suitable for people who think they don’t like superhero comics. If you can’t buy into the genre, you’re not going to like the superhero stuff, no matter how good it is.

The primary exception are the products of Alan Moore. His work is imaginative and literary; I think that most open-minded adults will find it engaging. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (volume one, volume two) is clever fun. It takes fictional Victorian heroes — such as Captain Nemo, Dr. Jekyll, and Mina Harker — and melds them into a sort of “superteam”. Every character in the book is an established character from a previous work of fiction or an ancestor of a character from modern-day fiction.

Moore’s V for Vendetta has no superheroes, though it trades on superhero comic tropes. It explores themes of freedom, identity, and fascism. I think the beginning is strong, but the ending is something of a chore.

Finally, Watchmen deals explicitly with superheroes (though largely C-list superheroes that nobody has ever heard of). Many, including myself, consider Watchmen the finest superhero comic ever published. To quote the wikipedia:

Watchmen is drama that incorporates moral philosophy, popular culture, history, art, and science. It is set in an alternative history 1980s America where costumed adventurers are real and the U.S. is close to a nuclear war with Russia. Public opinion towards the notion of vigilantism has soured and public demonstrations demand the police be reinstated as the de facto marshals of law. Meanwhile, members of The Minutemen, a defunct organization of costumed adventurers, are being murdered. Watchmen is the only graphic novel to have won a Hugo Award and is also the only graphic novel to appear on Time magazine’s list of “100 best novels from 1923 to present.”

That’s a lot of information, I know, but I hope this guide proves useful to someone. Comics and graphic novels are often marginalized by the well-read, and that’s too bad. I often find them just as exciting, entertaining, and educational as any other literature.

Writing Tip: Ignore Expectations

Amy at The Writer’s Group declares, “Enough!” She gives a few anecdotes of writers who have achieved some measure of success, but for whom this is not enough.

Lately I’ve fallen victim to creeping expectations. Others’ expectations, yes, but more than that, my own expectations. I let past success intimidate me so that I’m afraid to continue trying. This is dangerous ground.

Amy concludes by writing:

Relax. Write the very best you can with each book. Take your time and avoid anyone else’s expectations. Have goals, but make sure they’re your own. Stay true to your story and to your self. Write for the pure joy it gives you. Let that be enough — at least for today.

Replace “blog” for “book” and all I can say is: Amen.

American Writers On America

There was a fantastic post at Metafilter a few weeks ago. Kattullus wrote:

Writers on America is a collection of essays by various American authors on different aspects of America. It was conceived in the direct aftermath of 9/11 as a way to introduce readers to a United States that is not prominent in American pop culture. It is published by the US State Department and distributed by embassies.

Michael Chabon writes about growing up in the utopian planned city of Columbia, Maryland. Bharati Mukherjee writes On Being an American Writer rather than an Indo-American one. Charles Johnson writes about a great uncle who started a milk company, and after that went belly-up in the Great Depression, founded a construction business.

The other authors with essays in the volume are Elmaz Abinader, Julia Alvarez, Sven Birkerts, Robert Olen Butler, Billy Collins, Robert Creeley, David Herbert Donald, Richard Ford, Linda Hogan, Mark Jacobs, Naomi Shihab Nye and Robert Pinsky.

On Voice of America Eric Felten interviewed Mark Jacobs, George Clack, executive editor of the publication and Joseph Bottum, books and arts editor of the Weekly Standard. NPR interviewed Clack and Elmaz Abinader [RealAudio] about the project and On the Media interviewed Clack by himself.

The comments on this post at Metafilter are interesting, too, with loud cries of “propaganda”, as if it’s wrong to be proud of one’s country. It’s stuff like this that keeps me returning to Metafilter again and again.

[Metafilter: American writers on America]

Great American Writers and Their Cocktails

NPR’s Morning Edition recently ran a fabulous piece on great American writers and their cocktails. This is actually based on a new book, Hemingway & Bailey’s Bartending Guide

I’m going to have to try Fitzgerald’s gin rickey. I’m a fan of the gin fizz, and this looks vaguely similar.

Gin Rickey
It is easy to imagine a warm summer evening out on the shore of Long Island — say a party at Gatsby’s house, the bartenders serving up light, refreshing Gin Rickeys as the jazz band swings. In the 1920s and ’30s there were any number of Rickeys (scotch, rum, applejack), but gin is the one that endured. And besides, it was Fitzgerald’s favorite.

2 oz. gin
3/4 oz. lime juice
Top with club soda
Lime wheel
 
Pour gin and lime juice into a chilled highball glass filled with ice cubes. Top with club soda, and stir gently. Garnish with lime wheel. Serve with two straws.

Hemingway & Bailey’s Bartending Guide has made its way to my Amazon wishlist. (What book doesn’t?) I love this sort of thing.

[NPR: Great American writers and their cocktails]